Having lost the race to the Moon, the Soviet space program decided to go in a different direction. If they couldn’t be first on the moon, then they could take the lead in the area of endurance in space and the development of space stations.
In 1971 they launched the world’s first space station, and the crew of three cosmonauts who inhabited the station set the record for the longest time in space.
Their accomplishments in space, however, were overshadowed by what happened on their return to Earth.
Learn more about Soyuz 11 and the only humans to have ever died in space on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
It is common to think that the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union ended the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
That, at least, is the American perspective. According to that view, after starting from behind in the early 1960s, the United States leaped ahead in the space race and cross the finish line before the Soviets.
There is an element of truth to that, but it isn’t the whole truth. In reality, the Soviets never really made a serious attempt at landing a human on the moon. The race to the moon was really more a race the Americans had with themselves.
The Soviets, knowing that they couldn’t beat the Americans to the moon, shifted their attention to trying to dominate Earth’s orbit.
They were going to build the first space station where cosmonauts could stay for extended periods with the goal of establishing a permanent presence in space.
On April 19, 1971, while the United States was still in the middle of the Apollo program, they launched Salyut 1, the world’s first space station.
Salyut 1 was intended to be a proof of concept. It was to fly into space and be a home for cosmonauts for a few weeks before returning to Earth. It was 20 meters long and 4 meters in diameter.
The Soviets didn’t have a great deal of experience with orbital rendezvous and docking.
Vostok 3 and 4 in 1962 and Vostok 5 and 6 in 1963 both attempted to rendezvous in space, but they only got within a few kilometers of each other.
Soyuz 3 attempted to dock with the uncrewed Soyuz 2 in October 1968. Soyuz 3 came within a meter of the target but eventually had to abandon the attempt due to a lack of fuel to continue orbital maneuvers.
This is relevant because three days after Salyut 1 was launched, its first crew flew up to the space station.
Soyuz 10 was to be the first crew to visit Salyut 1. They managed to rendezvous and soft dock with the space station, but due to a technical malfunction, they were unable to hard dock, which would allow them to transfer spacecraft.
With the docking unsuccessful, Soyuz 10 immediately returned to Earth.
The failure of Soyuz 10 was an embarrassment, in their next attempt, they were sending up an experienced crew in Soyuz 11 led by Alexei Leonov, the world’s first spacewalker.
However, just three days before launch, during a routine physical, one of the crew members, Valeri Kubasov, was found to have a lump in their lung. Fearing tuberculosis, the entire crew was scrubbed, and the mission was given to the backup crew. It later turned out that it was nothing more than a pollen allergy.
Soyuz 11 was launched on June 7, 1971. The former backup crew, now the main crew, consisted of three cosmonauts: Commander Georgy Dobrovolsky, Research Engineer Vladislav Volkov, and Flight Engineer Viktor Patsayev.
This time the rendezvous and docking was a success. The technical problem had been solved, and Soyuz 11 became the first successful docking with a space station in history.
The docking process was time-consuming as this had never been done before. It took over 3 hours. They had to check to make sure that all the seals were tight between the capsule and the station. They had to make sure the electrical and hydraulic connections were all working. Most importantly, they had to make sure that the pressure in both spacecraft was the same before they opened the door.
The mission aboard Salyut 1 consisted of a lot of maintenance and testing as this was the first space station to have ever flown.
They had to test all of the systems aboard the space station to make sure everything worked. They had to check the navigation and control systems of the space station to change its orbit and conduct maneuvers.
One of the objectives of the mission was to establish the record for time spent in space, so they did have quite a bit of time on their hands.
They conducted scientific observations of the Earth’s surface, studying geology, snow, and ice cover, as well as observations of the atmosphere.
Perhaps most importantly, they were able to conduct studies on themselves as they had now spent more time in space than any other human beings. They worked out on the first treadmill in space. They grew Chinese cabbage and onions, the first plants grown in space. They operated the first astronomical telescope in space.
They also did daily television programs for Soviet citizens from space, something that Soviet journalists dubbed Cosmovision.
After 23 days in space and 362 orbits around the Earth, the decision was made to bring the crew home a bit early. Mechanical problems were developing onboard the space station, and there had been a small electrical fire.
Before leaving, they put the space station into a higher orbit to prevent any orbital decay that might occur until the next crew arrived.
On June 29, the crew left Salyut 1, entered the Soyuz 11 capsule, and started the process to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. With them were scientific samples, tapes, and other gear used during their mission.
As they were about to leave, there was a warning light in their capsule, indicating that the hatch on their capsule hadn’t been sealed properly. The team on the ground took them through a procedure to clear any possible objects which prevented the hatch from sealing, but the warning light remained on.
The ground control determined that the hatch was sealed, and they were given the order to separate from Salyut 1. As they pulled away, they circled the space station and took photos of what was their home for the last 23 days.
After three orbits, commander Dobrovolsky fired their retrorockets to slow their speed for reentry, and nine minutes later, they fired the explosive bolts to separate the descent capsule from the rest of the spacecraft.
As far as everyone on the ground was concerned, the return went according to plan. The capsule reentered the atmosphere, the parachutes deployed, and they landed not far from their target in what is today central Kazakhstan.
Mission control was worried when they didn’t hear any voice communications from the crew when they reentered the atmosphere but were relieved when they saw the parachutes open.
When the recovery team reached the capsule, they knocked on the hatch, which was the sign to let the cosmonauts know they had arrived. The cosmonauts were to knock back as an all’s well signal.
However, the recovery team didn’t hear a reply.
When they opened the hatch of the capsule, the recovery team was horrified at what they saw.
All three cosmonauts were dead.
All of them had dark blue blotches on their face and had blood streaming from their noses and ears.
This had been the second Soviet space flight to end in disaster, following the death of Vladimir Komarov in Soyuz 1 in 1967, on which I’ve previously done an episode.
The deaths of the cosmonauts was a shock to everyone in the Soviet Union as they had been watching them on television for the last several weeks.
The men were posthumously grated the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, and their bodies lay in state for several days as thousands of mourners paid their respects. After a full state funeral, their ashes were interred in the wall of the Kremlin.
The Americans sent astronaut Thomas Stafford as their representative to the funeral, where he was hosted by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. The friendship the two men struck culminated in the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, where the two men met and shook hands in space.
A month after their funeral, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 placed a plaque and small statue on the moon to commemorate all fallen astronauts and cosmonauts, including the crew of Soyuz 11.
While the deaths of the three cosmonauts was widely known throughout the Soviet Union, what was kept secret from the Soviet people for years was what caused their death.
The three men had obviously died of asphyxiation. An investigation into their deaths soon discovered the problem.
When the descent capsule separated from the rest of the craft just before reentry, a faulty valve sprang open. The valve was only supposed to open to allow air to enter the capsule when it had reached an altitude of four kilometers.
When it accidentally opened, the capsule was still in the vacuum of space, and the air inside the capsule escaped.
The position of the men inside the capsule indicated that they recognized the problem and attempted to close the valve. However, the process of manually closing the valve took several minutes.
The heart monitor data showed that all three astronauts were dead in under two minutes after the loss of pressure, and for much of that time, they were unable to function.
Prior to the mission, the original commander Alexei Leonov told the crew to manually close the valve between the orbital and descent modules because he didn’t trust them. None of the cosmonauts did the manual valve closure as suggested.
Perhaps most importantly, none of the cosmonauts were wearing pressurized space suits, which would have protected them from such an event.
The tragedy of Soyuz 11 resulted in many changes to the Soviet space program.
The Soyuz spacecraft was redesigned to improve valves and allowed them to be quickly shut manually if necessary.
Future Soyuz flights were also changed from three cosmonauts to two. The extra space allowed for each cosmonaut to wear a pressure suit during launch and reentry.
Soyuz spacecraft are still being used today, and since Soyuz 11, there hasn’t been a single fatality.
As for Salyut 1, the world’s first space station, no other crews were sent to it, and in October 1971, it was deorbited over the Pacific Ocean after only 175 days in orbit.
The legacy of Soyuz 11 is very bittersweet. It was a record-setting mission. The cosmonauts were the first to ever live on a space station, and they broke the record for the longest time in orbit. The things they did in orbit were the first time many of them had ever been done.
In the end, however, Soyuz 11 has gone down in history as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of spaceflight. As the three cosmonauts died above the Karman Line while still in orbit, they were the first and so far only human beings to have died in space.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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